Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2021

MLB Tries To Shift The Blame

There is a classic scene in “Bull Durham” in which minor league manager Skip, thoroughly exasperated by the play of his squad, stands in the locker room and tells his charges that they are playing “a simple game.  You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”  Yet while the essence of the Great Game can be reduced to such elemental actions, the major league rulebook and its five appendices runs to more than one hundred seventy pages, including eleven dedicated just to definitions of various terms.  And that considerable bulk doesn’t include the sport’s countless unwritten rules, which can’t be in a book since that would necessitate their being committed to paper.  So perhaps the game is not so simple after all.  That certainly seems to be the case this week, when far more attention is being paid to the legalistic language of the MLB rulebook than to any action on the field.

The center of debate is the second paragraph of Rule 3.01, which states “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”  This language – and yes it really does include licorice – is reinforced many pages later in Rule 6.02(c), which details what a pitcher is barred from doing with a ball and includes a prohibition against a moundsman even having a foreign substance in his possession while on the mound.

These injunctions are anything but new additions to MLB’s rulebook.  The “emery ball,” a horsehide that has been scuffed by rubbing it against a rough surface such as an emery board, dates back more than a century.  But if one were to believe this week’s announcement from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, despite this clear and longstanding language the Great Game has suddenly been beset by a wave of rogue pitchers who have been callously defying authority by rubbing up balls with all manner of substances, from fairly simple combinations of rosin and sunscreen lotion, to exotic specialty products like Spider Tack, a paste originally marketed to weightlifters looking for a secure grip on objects weighing hundreds of pounds.  While these scofflaws, having been found out, will contend their intent was merely to enhance control over a rock-hard pellet they throw at speeds sometimes surpassing 100 miles per hour in the general direction of another human being, MLB has concluded that their real goal was to increase the spin rate of pitches, making their offerings virtually impossible to hit. 

That blatant disregard for the rules is why so many of baseball’s offensive statistics have been in steady decline for several years and have cratered to historic lows this season, or so we are told.  Now to the rescue comes the commissioner’s office, with a plan to strictly enforce those rules starting Monday.  Umpires will examine the uniforms, gloves and hands of every pitcher entering a big league contest and will be free to visit the mound as often as they wish if a hurler perhaps touches his belt or scratches the back of his head in a manner the umpire deems suspicious.  Ten game suspensions, during which the offender’s club will be unable to replace him on the roster, await those who now dare violate the sanctity of the rulebook.

Sky-high strikeout rates and a general paucity of offensive action are very real, and a legitimate problem for MLB.  But the sudden focus on “sticky stuff,” which oversimplifies a complex issue while placing the blame for it squarely on players, seems contrived.

To be sure, many of the presumed villains in the piece have done poor jobs defending themselves.  Most notably, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow complained bitterly that having to abandon the rosin and sunscreen mix he had long used led directly to him gripping the ball too hard in his next outing, and so to an injury that now threatens at the very least his season, and possibly more.  That rant prompted widespread jeers from many fans who rushed right by its context – an athlete in the bloom of youth suddenly facing a potentially career-altering injury – in their haste to translate it to Glasnow saying he got injured because he was forced to stop cheating.  The jeering was no doubt met by cheering in MLB headquarters, where no one will complain if fans associate any of the Great Game’s problems with players rather than management.  After all, what are certain to be acrimonious negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement are only a few months away.

Even without assuming such Machiavellian intent related to the upcoming contract fight, MLB’s focus on the many pitchers who have been using grip, and presumably spin, enhancing substances conveniently narrows what should be an extremely broad indictment.  For as every fan, pundit, player, and executive knows, the Great Game not only has unwritten rules, it also has some pages of its official rulebook that are strictly enforced, and some that have long been, at best, advisory.  The pages with the rules about substances on baseballs have always been in the latter category.

Gaylord Perry was, by general consensus, one of the finest spitballers ever to take the mound.  So good in fact, he made it into the Hall of Fame in 1991.  Whitey Ford was accused more than once of doctoring baseballs in various ways, though he always swore he didn’t do so during his Cy Young Award winning 1961 season.  So it has always gone, down through generations.  Thus it came as no surprise this week when, after MLB’s announcement, we heard pitchers say that coaches and managers and front office personnel knew or encouraged or even instructed them to use some substance on the ball.

Does that widespread knowledge make it right to break the rules?  Of course not.  But it does put all of MLB in the role of Captain Louis Renault in that eternal classic, “Casablanca.”  No doubt Rob Manfred was shocked, shocked to find out what was going on in major league ballparks, as he tried so hard to make this all about the players. 

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